29 January 2010

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Sofia"?

As I've remarked before, I do every "Who Goes There?" column hoping to love the old joint I discover, and wishing to find that they have richly deserved their low-profile longevity. In almost every case (well, maybe not Spain Restaurant), I've found either a wonderful gem of a relic, or at least some saving graces. I even want Rolf's to stay open, though I found the service unforgivably buzz-killing. It's just so peculiar; and how can you hate Christmas?

But Sofia? Why has this place held on to such a prime piece of real estate for 35 years? It's musty, the service is awful and negligent, the food barely acceptable. Everyone involved is doing their job badly. People who operate a restaurant in this sloppy, careless, and contemptuous a fashion do not deserve to beat the odds. And since there's no real historical aspect to cherish here, the disappearance of Sofia wouldn't amount to much. The Hotel Edison deserved a fine-dining restaurant every bit as good as its diner, the Edison Cafe. I'd love to know the real story behind Sofia's tenaciousness, because there must be a story. I mean, just look at the comments on Yelp and Citysearch. There's no visible reason the Edison shouldn't have pulled the plug on this place years ago.

Who Goes There? Sofia
The sweet, old, Hotel Edison in Times Square has two restaurants inside its walls. One is the homey, welcoming Edison Cafe, purveyor of matzo ball soup to theater types. The other is worn, dimly lit Sofia, the enduring mystery of West 46th Street. Everyone knows why the Edison Cafe has been there so long. It's as comforting as an old terrycloth bathrobe and serves good, cheap food in cheery, classic-diner surroundings. Sofia has been there even longer—35 years—but its charms are so nonexistent, one can only suppose that the hotel manager lost the lease to the space in a poker game long ago.
Who goes here? Suckers, as far as I can tell. Unfortunate saps. Theatergoers and hotel stayers and tourists who don't know any better. No diner I asked had ever been there before, and they didn't look too happy in their choice. Few restaurants are so well positioned to take advantage of Broadway theater crowds, and few capitalize on it less. The lighting is ashen and makes you feel like you're living a sort of shadow life. The interior, with its neon-accented oval bar, weird tiered seating and stucco ceilings, looks like it last had a revamp in 1982. The imperious maitre d' wears a peremptory air and a florid tie. He knocks menus against tabletops as he brusquely tries to seat you at the very back of a nearly empty room. The omnipresent staff talks water-cooler-shit amongst themselves as if there were no diners around them.
While the dining room has the air of a funeral parlor, the bar area is a little livelier, owing mainly to the bartender, his dark hair slicked way over his back collar. He has a voice loud enough to carry to Jersey City. "You play tennis," he asked a waiter halfway across the room. "Want to play tennis? I'll beat you. You fast? I'm not fast. But I'll beat you. You play basketball? I'll destroy you." This is the kind of loudmouth you expect to find in a bar half the time. But not BEHIND the bar.
The barroom does seem to have regulars, however, the way the restaurant does not. Everyone hugged one woman on a stool; they all seemed to know her. Two other disheveled men talk sports and such as if they planned to be there all night long.There are a couple warming trays filled with free food in the corner. The place could be in Woodside. No one would guess that Scarlett Johansson is playing down the block.
Sofia is apparently part of a local mini-chain. The other locations are in Bay Ridge and Sheepshead Bay, which, you know, kinda explains a lot. Class this joint ain't got. A homeless man came in to ask, embarrassed, to use the bathroom, and the maitre d' angrily berated him for all to hear. The pasta is store-bought and the sad, frostbit desserts are obviously whisked from freezer to plate to table. I gnawed at my overcooked bucatini and thought of that bowl of matzo ball soup down the hall that could have been mine. —Brooks of Sheffield


Dan said...

For better or worse, this place definitely strikes me as a holdover from the old, brusque Times Square. Certainly a relic of a dingier, more no-frills time. With crummier restaurants in Times Square.

mingusal said...

There is only one reason why this place has stayed in business so long, and if you go there an hour before curtain time you'll find out why. You probably won't be able to get a seat then, but just hang around to 7:45 when there will be plenty of tables available and the place will be like a mausoleum once again.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

But I was there in the hours before curtaintime and the place was one-tenth full.

mingusal said...

Interesting. Maybe that recession is having some good effects after all. The only two times I was ever in this crappy restaurant was a couple of years ago. I was dragged in there by some friends before a Friday night show because they serve dinner fast, and the place was packed both times.

mingusal said...

Oh, and I live in Woodside. There are no restaurants like this in our multi-ethnic enclave over here - thank goodness.